Rugby Championship Preview: How will Eddie Jones' Australia fare against their southern hemisphere rivals?

Eddie Jones will lead Australia for the first time in 18 years when they take on South Africa this weekend

The southern hemisphere’s premier competition returns this weekend with Australia, Argentina, South Africa and New Zealand all on the hunt for Rugby Championship glory.

The opening game of the tournament sees the Wallabies travel to Pretoria to take on the Springboks at Loftus Versfeld - a stadium the visitors have never been victorious at. 

There will be a spotlight on Eddie Jones as he will want to get off to the best possible start in this year’s competition, in what will be his first game in charge of the Wallabies for 18 years.

Whilst the Australians were somewhat stagnant under Dave Rennie, winning only five of 14 tests in 2022, they do have an exciting, young squad that fans will hope Jones can get the most out of. 

One of these exciting youngsters is 22-year-old blindside flanker Tom Hooper, who will earn his Wallabies debut this weekend in a back-row that contains his namesake, Michael Hooper, as well as the explosive Rob Valentini.

Quade Cooper also returns to Test action, in what is his first start in South Africa since 2013, and he is partnered at half-back by Nic White. There is also a first Test start for NRL convert Suliasi Vunivalu while on the bench, Carter Gordon, Zane Nonggor and Top 14 champion Richie Arnold are all set for their debuts.

As for South Africa, in an attempt to increase the game time for some of his fringe players ahead of this year’s World Cup, Jacques Nienaber has sent many of his stars (including the likes of Malcolm Marx, Eben Etzebeth and Faf de Klerk) to New Zealand a week early and has given a few inexperienced names a crack against Australia this weekend.

In the absence of skipper Siya Kolisi - who is recovering from a knee injury - Duane Vermeulen will captain the squad in a side that includes the Stormers’ talisman Mannie Libbok at fly-half.

RG Snyman is also set to earn his first Test cap since the 2019 Rugby World Cup final after an injury-ravaged few years, whilst his fellow lock and Munster teammate, Jean Kleyn, will make his Springboks debut after recently getting World Rugby’s approval to play for the country of his birth following his three-year stand-down period.

The closing game of the weekend will see last year’s champions, New Zealand, take on Los Pumas in Mendoza in what will be only their third-ever visit to the city.

The All Blacks will be looking to end their terrible record of Rugby Championship results in World Cup years, having not won the southern hemisphere trophy in the same year as rugby’s biggest competition since the 2007 Tri-Nations.

However, with their domestic teams in fine form in Super Rugby this season, particularly the Chiefs and Crusaders, confidence is likely to be high in the camp ahead of Ian Foster’s last Rugby Championship as head coach.

Damian Mckenzie starts at fly-half ahead of Super Rugby winner Richie Mo’unga, with two-time World Men’s Player of the Year Beauden Barrett occupying the 15 shirt. Adding to this electric backline is Emoni Narawa, whose strong performances on the Chiefs' right wing this season have earned him a first All Blacks cap.

Whilst they certainly aren’t the bookies' favourites for the tournament, Argentina will undoubtedly look to last year’s victories in England and New Zealand as some inspiration.

Los Pumas will also be roared on by 42,500 fans in Mendoza, in what will be a sell-out crowd and a likely hostile atmosphere.

Michael Cheika’s side will hope to recapture the strong form they were in at the start of the Australian’s reign, especially ahead of the World Cup in which they find themselves in the easier side of the draw, with the potential to go far in the competition.

The ever-reliable Emiliano Boffelli starts at fullback, with the Premiership quartet of Santiago Carreras, Mateo Carreras, Matias Moroni and Lucio Cinti joining him in the backline.

There is huge experience on the bench for Los Pumas as their two most capped players of all time - Agustin Creevy and Nicolas Sanchez - wait in the wings in the hope of making an impact later on in the game.

With new coaches, injuries to key players and a number of debutants, there is a sense of the unknown in how each side will perform over the next few weeks making this year’s Rugby Championship an extremely exciting prospect.